Writing for Business

Jan 18 2010   6:55PM GMT

Founder or flounder? (Neither is good but one is worse than the other.)

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?
Apple ________ for some time after Jobs left.
a. foundered
b. floundered

Answer: b.

To flounder is to struggle to do something in a clumsy, fumbling way. Not good. On the other hand, to founder is to fail utterly and decisively, which is almost certainly worse. And we see that Apple is very much still with us, so it can’t have foundered.

The Word Detective has an interesting entry: Flounders founder, woodchucks chuck, film at 11. Here’s an excerpt:

The matter of “founder” versus “flounder” is exactly the sort of question my parents delighted in exploring, and in their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985), they delivered a concise verdict: “These two verbs are often confused and consequently misused. ‘Flounder’ means to ‘thrash about,’ as would an animal mired in mud. ‘Founder’ means to ‘fail completely, collapse or sink.’…”

To begin at the beginning, the verb “to founder” means, in its basic sense, “to sink completely, collapse,” or, in an extended sense, “to fail utterly.” The source of “founder” was the Old French “fondrer,” meaning “submerge, send to the bottom,” and its ultimate root is the Latin “fundus,” meaning “bottom” (which also gave us the words “foundation,” “found” and “fundamental,” among others).

“Flounder” as a verb is an odd bird. (The noun “flounder,” a kind of flat fish, is etymologically unrelated to the verb “to flounder”). The verb “to flounder” is almost certainly an alteration of “to founder,” influenced by other verbs, such as “blunder,” depicting clumsy or frantic motion. When “flounder” first appeared in the 16th century, it meant “to stumble,” and later “to struggle clumsily.” A bit later on, it came to mean “to struggle along with great difficulty.

Read on…

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